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January 09, 2014 9:23 AM Apples to Apples

By Ed Kilgore

If the last post discusses the outdated assumptions underlying official poverty measurements, it’s equally important to recognize what they do and don’t measure, and choose points of comparison that make sense. Last month WaPo’s Brad Plumer discussed the first problem in the context of a new study of poverty:

The new study attempts to create a better, more accurate index of poverty that takes into account the full range of household expenses and incorporates government taxes and transfers. It’s based on a new method of calculating poverty introduced by the Census back in 2010 — this paper extends that index back to 1967….
Based on that data, the fraction of Americans with incomes below the poverty line has dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent today.

So the idea that government programs have failed to make a dent in poverty depends on skewed comparisons (aside from the fact that these programs offer critical day-to-day assistance to people in need of basic necessities, which conservatives sometimes forget about).

But even the comparison Plumer makes is a bit misleading: 1967 was an extraordinary economic boom year; this year not so much. If you use 2000 rather than 2013 as a point of comparison, the adjusted poverty rate dropped to around 14% before the last decade or so, which was famously characterized by increased inequality.

In any event, it’s easy to make government programs look useless if you use apples to oranges comparisons and also forget that “lifting people out of poverty” is only one purpose of government assistance: actually keeping people alive while they are in poverty is another. Either way they’re doing a better job than often advertised.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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